The Conversation Continues

By Interview by Aliah D. Wright Jul 1, 2010
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0710cover.gifIn her interview with best-selling author and management consultant Don Tapscott, Aliah D. Wright, an online editor/manager for SHRM, asked him to identify places where human resources can intersect with the workplace characteristics of the Net Generation, or the Net Geners—Tapscott’s terms for Millennials, those born since about 1980.

You wrote in Grown Up Digital that the Net Generation is approaching work collaboratively, collapsing the rigid hierarchy and forcing executives to rethink how they “recruit, compensate, develop and supervise talent.” How should HR professionals cope?

Soon, many Baby Boomer bosses will have retired—assuming they can afford to—and many Net Geners will have positions of authority. You will see a sea change in the tone of the workplace. In Wikinomics [with co-author Anthony D. Williams; Portfolio, 2006, expanded edition 2008], we talked about the army marching in lockstep to tightly arranged military music as a metaphor for yesterday’s workplace. But the workplace of the future will be more like a jazz ensemble—where musicians improvise creatively around an agreed key, melody and tempo.

Employees are developing their own self-organized interconnections and forming cross-functional teams capable of interacting as a global, real-time workforce. Loosening organizational hierarchies and giving more power to employees can lead to faster innovation, lower cost structures, greater agility, improved responsiveness to customers, and more authenticity and respect in the marketplace.

How essential is it for HR professionals to tap into Millennials’ ways in our technological age? Does this differ from the ways they may have worked with Baby Boomers and members of Generation X?

Even with the current economic downturn, we’re on the brink of a major war for talent, as many managers who rely on knowledge workers already know. The tables have turned. Twenty years ago, when college grads poured into the workforce, corporate recruiters had their pick of the best and the brightest. Employers had the power to choose; employees were grateful to get jobs and did what they could to keep them, and the last thing on their minds would be to suggest radical new ways of working and managing companies. But, in the next 10 years, as middle-aged and older employees retire, there won’t be enough Net Geners to fill the management spots recently vacated.

To win the war for talent, business leaders will have to completely rethink the ways they handle employees, from the first contact to after they leave the company.

You wrote in Grown Up Digital that the Net Generation should be more concerned about privacy. In fact, publicity has highlighted how people get in trouble as a result of information they’ve placed on the Internet. And, a recent study by the Pew Research Center says most Millennials have placed privacy boundaries on their social media profiles. Is the best response not to engage?

No, I don’t think young adults should abandon social networking sites, provided those sites give users effective tools to control who sees their information. But the lesson of the past couple of years is clear: Young adults should use social networking with care and common sense and be vigilant. Once information is on the Internet, it can never be removed, no matter how hard one tries.

I’m encouraged by the Pew research. It confirms what I wrote in Grown Up Digital—that Net Geners are starting to get smart on this issue, perhaps even more so than older people.

You write that young people have different attitudes about collaboration, and want to have fun at work and be free to work when and where they want. They also want constant feedback. What are the benefits to employers if they embrace the ways young people expect to work?

They will have a high-performing company. For example, managers at the electronics retail giant Best Buy seem to understand the value of Net Generation thinking. Brad Anderson, Best Buy’s former chief executive officer who retired last year, says the most important people in the company are the tens of thousands of young people in blue shirts who work in the stores. Anderson told me these young employees “are closest to our customers, are most like our customers, and their culture is the culture of 21st century Best Buy.”

Anderson says his job was not so much to make decisions but rather to create the conditions where his young customer-facing employees can self-organize and help reinvent the company. The company has an online social network with 25,000 young employees who regularly gather to brainstorm and share insights. Managers pay attention. Anderson says he is in the business of “unleashing the power of Net Generation human capital.”

At the corporate level, Best Buy has embraced flexible time. Employees can choose when and where to do their work, provided it gets done. So far it is working out very well.

If there is one factor HR should know about hiring Millennials and helping them blend in with Boomers and members of other generations, and how that factor can ultimately benefit companies, what is it?

I am pleasantly surprised and delighted with just how quickly the Net Generation adapts. When I wrote [the first edition of] Growing Up Digital (McGraw-Hill, 1997), the web was still largely a publishing medium. Companies and other organizations posted information online for others to consume. Since then, of course, the web has become much more a collaborative tool, often referred to as Web 2.0. With their early adoption of tools such as IM, texting, collaborating with wikis and use of social media, the Net Generation continues to innovate and show leadership.

The interviewer is an online editor/manager for SHRM.

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